AN: Yo, it's been awhile. I originally planned on doing Initiation all in one chapter, but it kind of got out of hand. There are so many character-establishing moments here that Jaune has to share the spotlight a little, and that adds a lot of length. Thus I've split Initiation in two. The good news is this first half is a whopping 9.3K words. Hopefully that makes up for the long wait. I'm already 5K words into the second half, so the next chapter shouldn't take anywhere near as long to come out. Then again, you should maybe be a bit skeptical of what I say. *wink wink nudge nudge*
Beta: Bitter End
Jaune the Skeptic — Chapter 4: "The Giving Tree"
Jaune breathed in the cool morning air. The sky was blue and the sun had just cleared the horizon. It was a beautiful day to die.
He wished he had time to enjoy it, but there was work to be done.
After making sure there was no one around, he hammered a set of pitons into the ground and threw a large coil of rope over the side of the cliff. He covered these with a thicket of bushes he had "borrowed" from a courtyard. The hedge had been sculpted into a portly man with a carefully manicured mustache for whatever reason. Despite the obvious care that had gone into its creation it hadn't really fit in with the rest of the landscaping. Jaune figured that he did the groundskeeper a favor when he dismantled it with Crocea Mors.
Satisfied that his climbing equipment was hidden, he scrambled to the last launching pad. Jaune had meant to wake up early to implement his "landing strategy," but he had stayed up so late making preparations that he overslept. I also shouldn't have spent so much time chatting in the locker room, I suppose. Hopefully he could finish before other people showed up. If he didn't, he would blame that sultrily dressed wrestler girl.
After talking with Ruby late into the night, the pair concluded that Jaune's aura could tank the fall. It was just a matter of activating his defense reliably. He even got some last-minute practice in when Ruby pushed him off the balcony. Truly, he had been blessed with the most thoughtful of friends.
Even so, Jaune wasn't the sort of person who could put his life in the hands of a pseudo-mystical soul power he discovered yesterday. His dad's forewarning gave him the opportunity to make other plans. He made use of it.
Leveraging his blade like a crowbar, he lifted up the platform. If he destroyed the pneumatics, he could compromise the launch. While everyone else flew through the air, Jaune would be stuck on the ground, safe and sound. From there he could convince the headmaster to let him find his own, alternate means down the cliff. Like a conveniently placed climbing rope. Not a foolproof plan, but it was the safest option. That's why it was Plan A.
"Oh, a student. You're here early."
Shit. Jaune turned and hid Crocea Mors behind his back. He was met face-to-face with the new professor that Ozpin had introduced yesterday. Her amber eyes regarded him curiously. Curse you Nikos, you vixen! This is your fault.
"Has Professor Goodwitch made the announcement already? Not even the headmaster is here yet." The brunette surveyed the empty cliffside.
"I'm just…very punctual, I guess." Plan A was out. Plan B, however, had just become viable. "My name is Jaune Arc. You're the new dust studies teacher, right? Professor Autumn?"
"Err…yeah, that's me." She gave him an awkward smile. "I don't think I could get used to that name though. Just call me Amber."
"Don't like being called professor?"
"Yeah, the professor part. That's what I meant." She coughed.
Jaune narrowed his eyes. Something was off about this woman, but he would worry about that later. He needed to focus on the task at hand.
"Hey, random academic question for you," he said. "About how many milligrams of granulated wind dust would one need to lift a fully grown adult male? Assuming you activated it kinetically against a flat surface, like a shield."
Amber's forehead creased. "I'm not sure I can answer that."
Jaune's heart sank, and Plan B along with it. He had hoped the new professor wasn't a stickler for rules on account of her youth. Maybe if I rephrased the question?
"Let me put it another way." He opened up a canister on his belt and pulled out a green vial. "If, hypothetically speaking, someone used this much dust after being catapulted from a cliff about as high as the one we're standing on, would he survive?"
"That's…err, listen, that's not the problem here," she stammered. Jaune made a pleading look, which caused her to avert her eyes skyward and make one of her own. A crow cawed ominously above them, as if it were greatly amused by their mutual distress. "T-that person would be okay…I think?"
"That's a relief." Jaune let out a heavy breath. "Thanks Professor. Uh, sorry, Amber. For answering my dumb hypothetical question, I mean." He had probably put her in a difficult position, asking for help right before what was essentially a second entrance exam. He was thankful that Plan B was a go though, because he really didn't want to rely on Plan C. The plans were ordered alphabetically by the likelihood of inflicting bodily harm, but he also liked to think of the "C" as standing for "crash."
"So long as it's hypothetical, you're welcome." She rubbed her head and then glanced at his belt. "Are all of those canisters filled with dust? You must be pretty good with the stuff if you carry around so much of it."
"All except one of them." The right-most container held Plan F—which wasn't a landing strategy, but rather an insurance plan. He had only thought to make it after talking to Ruby the night before, so it wasn't completely dry yet. "To be honest I'm a novice when it comes to dust. I just happen to have a lot for reasons I'd rather not get into."
"Oh." Amber blinked. She stiffly walked to the edge of the cliff and looked over. "How far down do you suppose the ground is?"
"A little over 200 feet." His standard-length climbing rope hadn't touched the bottom, but it was close enough. Since that plan was a wash he was focused on more important things, like retying his left boot. He had to skip every other eyelet in a zig-zag to account for his shortened lace. He prayed that it wouldn't come undone.
The young woman looked back and saw his fidgeting. "Are you nervous?" she asked, her own voice tinged with anxiety.
"Probably not as much as I should be. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but Headmaster Ozpin gave us all a major advantage."
"And what's that?"
Jaune stood, his eyes sweeping over the Emerald Forest. Four months. For four months he had tempered himself, alone, in the crucible of the wild. He had cried tears of blood. He had wallowed in the dissolving corpses of his enemies, screaming in agony from the strain that fighting inhuman monstrosities put on his body.
Yet he survived. Made fire. Found shelter in hollow trunks. Lived off apples and walnuts when his food ran out. He carved spears from branches, since throwing his sword always seemed to end poorly. He slept high above the ground on beds of leaves, where the wind cradled him to sleep under the light of the shattered moon.
And here he was, at Beacon. At the precipice of making his dream a reality.
He reached into his pocket, his hand grasping upon Sosostris's infernal card. The Ace of Swords. The physical reminder that he was a skeptic—that he didn't believe in magic or fairytales or destiny. Jaune Arc could not accept such childishly comforting ideas. He doubted a true portrait of the world was anything but cruel and uncaring. He doubted there was even a single drop of sunshine or magic on the canvas.
But Jaune also doubted he would die this day. No. He would not be made carrion for the frankly annoying crow that circled above his head. He refused.
Things were different now. He had allies—allies that had given him all the advantages he needed to defeat the Grimm. It sounded silly, but his soul itself seemed to vibrate in testament to this fact. Even if this forest was full of monsters, he would have nothing to fear as he walked underneath its shade, for he would not be alone.
A recent memory swirled in his mind's eye: a vision of red, and yellow too. It was strange that they weren't here yet, beside him under the longstanding gaze of autumn. But he could still answer the professor's question with confidence. That he would be with stalwart friends once the test began was an unassailable truth.
"The forest," said Jaune, his voice burning with conviction. "The forest is full of trees."
/ - /
Headmaster Ozpin was surprised to find people had beaten him to the Beacon cliffs. Amber, her bodyguard, and the young Mr. Arc were all there already. The new teacher and student were conversing pleasantly about life on the road. Good. Amber had been more than a little apprehensive about becoming a teacher, but she seemed to be settling into the role nicely.
Ozpin nodded once each to the three parties present and took his place at the edge of the cliff, sipping hot cocoa as he admired the view.
Glynda joined him not long afterwards, a stream of students trailing behind her. He felt a slight pang of guilt when he caught sight of Ruby Rose mixed among them. Since Qrow was on permanent leave from Signal, Beacon was the safest place for her now. She was also a certifiable combat prodigy, though he hadn't considered that much when he offered her admission. Someone with no prior combat experience could probably sneak into the first year and get by, provided they were sufficiently motivated and a little insane. Not that that would ever happen, of course.
The girl looked wary at the sight of Mr. Arc in conversation with Professor Autumn. After a few seconds of deliberation, she went to the farthest unoccupied platform away from the pair.
Ozpin raised a brow. Curious. Very curious. Has something transpired between Ms. Rose and Mr. Arc, I wonder?
He would have to look into the matter later. After all, amusing himself with the tribulations of his students was one of the greatest joys of being an educator. And he had been an educator for a very, very long time.
It all began over a thousand years ago. During one of his more troubled incarnations Ozpin had taken to ranting about his life problems in public spaces. Naturally this earned him a following of fervent disciples. How those idiots mistook his existential crisis for a legitimate philosophy, he could only guess, but it had given him the chance to further one of his goals: a search for a certain person that was still ongoing, even a millennium hence.
Though his searches had proven fruitless, he had been quite content playing philosopher. But alas, no good thing lasted forever. Everything changed one fateful autumn morning, when he fell from a cliff while delivering a lecture. Blindfolded.
A historic occasion, to be sure. It was on that day that Ozpin invented the landing strategy.
In the aftermath his disciples followed him everywhere he went, as they were convinced his disbelief had grown to such extremes that he would walk in front of a carriage or off another cliff. It was annoying. Trip one time in the middle of a rhetorical point about distrusting the senses and suddenly everyone thinks you're suicidal. He might not have been in the best state of mind, but they didn't have to baby him. μωροι κύνες. οὐ παραφρονῶ.
Not long afterwards Ozpin started throwing students off of cliffs—a proud tradition that continued to this very day. That certainly showed them for doubting his sanity.
He felt a nudge on his shoulder from Glynda. ἆρα πάντες νυν πάρεστιν;
"ὦ μαθηταί! νά τώ θεὼ φρουρὰν ἄζηλον ὀχήσω," Ozpin declared in a deep voice, spreading his arms in benediction. "ῥίψω γὰρ τήμερον ὑμᾶς ἐκ τῆς πέτρας. ποιεῖτε τοῦτο ἳνα μοι ἀρέσκητε. καί ἡδέως θεάσομαι τοῦτο ἀθλιωτάτον ἆθλον."
Another sharp nudge from Glynda. τί βούλεσθε, ὦ δούλη;…οἴμοι. Shit.
"Wise words from an ancient philosopher, which felt appropriate given the occasion." He smoothly switched to the correct language. "I'm sure many of you have been wondering about partners and teams, so allow me to put the rumors to rest. You will know your partner by the day's end. They will be your colleague and confidante in the brutal struggle that is the next four years of your life. In light of this, partners will be selected according to that ineffable force that binds us all together—the very thing that has kept civilization standing strong against the countless waves of Grimm that beset our world…"
Ozpin paused to reflect on the irony of it all. The same thing that had caused all the tragedy of the past was also their best hope for the future. He put his hand on his heart and looked over his students. His students and their humble, honest souls. A tear slid down his cheek.
"Is…is it love, sir?" one of them asked.
"No, Mr. Lark. It's random chance."
Glynda jabbed him in the side. There were groans and whispers, but none of the comically exaggerated reactions he had hoped for. In fact, he saw some students—Mr. Arc among them—nodding, as if they expected this outcome.
Did someone tell them already? That's no fun. Ozpin would have to remind the older students and staff not to reveal information about Initiation next year. If he couldn't get a chuckle or two out of catching students unawares, what was the point? It's not like there was anything actually dangerous in the forest.
"The first person you make eye contact with will be your partner, no exceptions," he said with much less enthusiasm. "Hidden in the forest is a temple containing a set of relics. These are your objectives. Each set of partners is to retrieve one of these relics and then return to the top of the cliff. You will be watched and graded throughout the exercise." Normally he would have added a foreboding comment or two, but his heart just wasn't in it anymore. "Are there any questions?"
Mr. Arc and Ms. Schnee looked like they were about to speak up, but both decided against it. They joined the others in assuming ready positions on the launch pad.
"Very well then." Ozpin took out his scroll. Usually he began the launches at the far end, but since Mr. Arc seemed more ready than the other side the headmaster decided to start with him.
A button was pressed. Mechanical gears whirled underneath all the platforms. Then, one by one, the primed pneumatics activated. Bodies sailed into the sky.
Initiation had begun.
"Yes, Glynda?" said Ozpin.
"What even was the beginning of that speech?"
Ozpin gazed at the flying students wistfully. "Nostalgia, dear Glynda. Nostalgia."
/ - /
One second passed. Then two. Then three. Jaune waited as he approached the apex of his trajectory. He needed to activate the wind dust at the precise right moment to control his descent. Allegedly if he knew how to manipulate dust using his aura he wouldn't have to worry about such fine timing. He could get around that though.
Granulated dust didn't have a high activation barrier, so smashing the vial against his shield would impart more than enough kinetic energy to overcome it. Then it was just a matter of angling the surface of his shield correctly to control the resulting thrust. Simple. Elegant. Newfangled aura not required.
As Jaune soared through the air he was reminded of a book he had read as a boy. It claimed that the goal of ancient skepticism was to achieve an imperturbable mind—one that no dilemma, lie, or trauma could assail. The ultimate poker face, if you will. Pyrrho hadn't screamed when he fell through the skies.
Jaune was not Pyrrho. According to historical accounts, the philosopher's voice had been smooth. Deep. Jaune's voice, on the other hand, was high and wheezy. His scream sounded a little girlish, if he was being honest.
His life flashed before his eyes. Since it was disappointingly boring, Jaune instead mentally cataloged all the fellow initiates he had met. Who did he want to be partners with?
Pyrrha, bless her heart, was right out.
He did feel sympathy for the poor girl. Jaune couldn't imagine spending years surrounded by showbiz-grade phonies, like she must have. He admired her tenacity—so much so that he had practically already forgiven her for ruining Plan A. And no, her having red hair had nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing at all.
The problem was that Jaune himself was already a walking liability. His team didn't need two.
In contrast Yang seemed like a natural fighter, but that came with baggage of its own. He didn't necessarily believe the rumors about her, but regardless of their veracity she had a reputation. Reputations drew scrutiny. Scrutiny was bad.
He hadn't gotten much of an impression of Weiss, other than she was a little inarticulate. She hardly spoke at all earlier, and when she did speak she either stuttered or looked deeply upset. Hopefully she would be more talkative later, when they discussed the SDC and its questionable business practices.
Blake was a wildcard if ever there was one. His current theory was that the "special recruit" label was Ozpin's way of isolating suspect persons from the rest of the student body. She could be anything from an ex-terrorist to a famous politician's daughter for all Jaune knew. Or worse: she could be a blundering incompetent who forged their way into the school, like him. Too risky.
No, to counterbalance his own ineptitude Jaune required a certified prodigy. His ideal partner would have proven talent, mesh with him on a personal level, and be willing to keep his secrets. But did such an individual exist?
Probably not, he decided after a moment's thought. A partner who fit that description sounded far too convenient. Knowing his luck he would be stuck with Pyrrha.
Still…Pyrrha, Yang, Weiss, Blake. Aren't I forgetting somebody? As he idly screamed and pondered this question, he felt a growing itch in his right hand.
Almost involuntarily, his fingers twitched.
/ - /
Ruby had been having a good day. They had cookies at breakfast. Jaune hadn't bothered her with inane questions since last night, and he had disappeared this morning to make preparations. She had even gotten back at Weiss for yelling at her.
When she saw the Ice Queen's head spinning in the wake of Jaune's insanity, Ruby couldn't resist landing the finishing blow. She didn't mean to knock the girl out cold though—not to say it wasn't cathartic. Enjoyable, even. She was actually frightened by how much she liked it. This intoxicating feeling…is this what Yang feels? Have I been corrupted?
Ruby resolved to apologize to Weiss after Initiation. She didn't want to be a bully.
Speaking of bullies, Ruby had magnanimously decided to let Yang be her partner, despite the latter's sullied reputation. Truly, Yang had been blessed with the most thoughtful of little sisters.
Jaune…well, she was sure he could find a partner on his own. Ruby worried for the blonde doofus, but she couldn't protect him forever. Even if it pained her, the mother bird eventually needed to push the children from the nest. Let them fly with their own two wings, so to speak.
When a vortex of green energy propelled a familiar blonde into her flight path, Ruby wondered if mother birds ever dealt with her problems. Did their children smuggle a highly unnecessary vial of wind dust onto their inaugural flight? Dust that propelled 200lbs of birdbrain slamming right back into them?
She watched helplessly as a crow was knocked from the sky by Jaune's flailing shield. Overcome by a mysterious feeling of kinship with the avian, she screamed out: "BIRDIE, NO!"
Those were her last words before she and Jaune collided, sending them both into an uncontrollable tailspin. In her disoriented state all Ruby could do was hold onto Crescent Rose and keep her aura up. And join Jaune in screaming, of course. "—AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"
The world transformed into branches and leaves. She tumbled through the forest canopy until a thud signaled her impact with the ground.
At long last, all was still.
"Ugh." Ruby groaned. She ached all over, but thanks to her aura she hadn't sustained any injuries. At least she landed on something soft, even if there wasn't much strategy involved.
"Uuuuggghhh." Another voice groaned beneath her.
"Doesn't count! Doesn't count! Doesn't count!" She shut her eyes and rolled off Jaune's body.
"Ruby, is that you?" he asked. Ruby heard him get up off the ground. "Of course, how could I forget you!? You're absolutely perfe—uh, why are you covering your eyes?"
"Just rubbing them, don't mind me. I think something got in them when we collided. Stray bit of wind dust, maybe?" There was an accusation in her words.
"Heheheh, sorry. I didn't mean to fly into you like that…"
"Riiiiiight. Why were you using dust at all though? That wasn't part of Plan A!"
"I managed to set up the rope, but Amber found me before I could sabotage the launching pad."
"What are you talking about? The climbing rope was Plan C."
"But wait, what was Plan A then?" he asked in confusion.
"Aura!" Ruby snapped. "'A' stands for 'aura.' 'C' stands for 'climb.'"
"Then what did the 'B' of Plan B stand for?"
"There was no Plan B!" she said, stomping. "At no point did we discuss a Plan B. If we're talking about that stunt you just pulled though, I would say the 'B' stood for 'brainless!' That was a stupidly large amount of wind dust you used, Jaune. You could have gotten hurt!"
"Yeah, 'oh.'" Ruby grumbled. "Where did you get that much dust anyway? I thought you were broke."
"Would you believe me if I said I tripped over a suitcase full of the stuff while running from a forest fire?"
"Ah. Well, I'm not sure what to tell you then."
They stood there for a long moment, saying nothing.
"Ruby?" Jaune broke the silence first.
"Are you keeping your eyes closed on purpose?"
"Oh, you noticed that?" She shifted uncomfortably, her eyes firmly clenched shut.
"You might not be able to see right now, but I can," he said with a snort. "Listen, I'm sorry about ignoring your plan. I…I wasn't confident that I could land safely with aura alone. Even after the practice we got in last night."
Ruby hid her reddening face behind the undeployed form of Crescent Rose. Did he really have to bring up her pushing him off the balcony?That was a moment of weakness!
"You don't want to be partners with me, do you?" he asked.
Trembling, she nodded her head.
Ruby had learned something since meeting Jaune: being responsible for someone's safety was hard. You didn't get to just ignore your problems and sit around all day, drinking hot cocoa. Knowing Jaune, it would be a matter of months before he stumbled into a shadow war against terrorists plotting the downfall of modern civilization, or something equally dumb. And whoever was his partner would have to keep him safe when that happened. The past 24 hours had been hard enough on Ruby. She wasn't sure she could handle four whole years' worth of stress and worry.
"Please…please don't hate me," she said in a small voice.
"It's fine. I don't blame you. I wouldn't want to be partners with someone like me either." He sounded like a kicked puppy. "If we separated here though, what's to stop us from running into each other again? You might even run into someone worse than me."
"Like who?" she asked.
"I don't know. Pyrrha Nikos?"
"Are you being sarcastic?"
"No? But that doesn't really matter right now. You can't keep your eyes shut forever."
"Pfff, says you. Just watch me." This would be easy. Ruby hadn't been admitted to Beacon two years early for nothing. She could do Initiation with her eyes closed, no problem. She confidently strode forward.
"That's the wrong way."
"Oh." She stopped. Maybe this would be harder than she thought.
"Anyway, what I was about to say was this: I can guide you, if you want. At least until we run into somebody else."
"You'd do that for me?"
"Sure. I did say I'd pay you back for all the help you've given me. An Arc's word is their bond." He paused. Ruby imagined he was scratching the back of his head, as he so often did when he was acting awkward. "And even if I didn't owe you a favor—" Ruby coughed loudly. "—several favors, sorry. Even if that wasn't the case, I'd still do this for you."
"Because we're friends," he said softly. "I want you to be happy. If having someone other than me as your partner will do that, then I'll do everything in my power to make it happen."
"Do…do you really mean that?" Ruby stared up at him, her silver eyes glistening.
"Of course. Just don't come crying to me when you end up with Pyr—oh, uh, did you…mean to…?"
"What? Is something wrong?" She blinked. And then she blinked again. "Oh…"
/ - /
Pyrrha smashed through several tree branches to slow her momentum before hitting the forest floor in a three-point landing.
Though Jaune had been right to say that partner selection was randomized, the eye contact clause afforded a lot of wiggle room. Pyrrha could have easily chosen anyone to be her partner, including Weiss or Jaune. They just wouldn't have been willing participants in the "choosing" is all…
Not that it mattered. She had decided to let the chips fall where they may, and she was going to keep to that decision. Even if spearing Jaune from behind had been tempting…that thought came out wrong.
As she began her journey through the forest Pyrrha reflected on the headmaster's words. He had used the ancient language of her ancestors. She never learned it herself since Valean Common was the lone spoken language of modern Remnant. She did, however, recognize bits and pieces of the speech. The phrase "νά τώ θεω" meant "by the two gods" and "ἆθλον" meant "contest" or "struggle." Was he talking about Initiation? But what did gods have to do with anything?
She eventually gave up trying to decode the speech—the grammar and vocabulary were far beyond her and she couldn't even remember the whole thing. Maybe Jaune would know what Ozpin had said; Pyrrha would ask him later. And no, she definitely wasn't using it as an excuse to talk to the boy again. Not at all.
Instead she wondered about who her partner would be. Would they be a boy or a girl? Would they be friendly? Would they ask for her autograph? Her heart pounded in anxiety at the thought.
Suddenly a high-pitched whine echoed through the forest: "Aahm~!"
Pyrrha readied Miló and Akoúō. Her body, which she had laboriously honed and trained, tensed in anticipation. This was first contact with the enemy.
"Meep~!" The sound was even closer now. What kind of Grimm makes that noise? She struggled to recall, but came up with nothing. Whatever it was, it would meet its end at the edge of her xiphos blade.
A figure lowered itself from a tree branch in front of her. The thing extended a limb and poked Pyrrha in the nose. "Boop."
"You're… a girl," Pyrrha said in amazement as she lowered her weapons. She had no idea human vocal cords could make such strange noises.
"I was going for 'sloth,'" the girl said as she jumped down and dusted off her pink skirt. "Is the pitch supposed to be higher? I've never heard a sloth before. Also, have you seen my friend Ren?"
"I'm not sure. Me neither. And no, you're the first person I've seen. What does your friend look like?" asked Pyrrha.
"Green robes, black hair, pink highlight. Basically a ninja?"
"…Haven't met him, I'm afraid. I'm really sorry."
"No worries. I'm off to go find him! See ya!" The girl ran into the woods without further comment.
"Good luck?" Pyrrha said to her retreating form before turning around and walking the opposite direction. What a strange person. No matter—she needed to keep looking for a partner.
She took a full three steps before she fully processed what had just happened.
"Sorry, but come back! Wait for me!" Pyrrha sprinted after…the girl. I didn't even get her name!? Nooo!
/ - /
Ren stared at his prey impassively. He hadn't flinched since he was a boy, and that wasn't about to change today.
Usually a Grimm the size of a fully-grown King Taijitu required a full team of student huntsmen to take down. Doubly so, considering it could attack two people at once with its twin heads. It would pose no threat to Ren, however. He could easily take on two or three Grimm simultaneously, regardless of their size.
A twig snapped at the edge of the clearing. It was too quiet for most people to hear, but Lie Ren was not most people. He shifted his eyes to find the lumbering forms of three Ursai laying in wait. Between them and the King Taijitu, five pairs of red eyes stared him down. They gleamed imperiously, as if they had already won.
An ambush? Ren cracked his neck and assumed the Four-Six Stance. This might be a challenge after all. Good thing I'm here instead of someone else. This would have been beyond most people, but it was not beyond him.
The Grimm snarled. Then, in unison, they attacked.
/ - /
How could this happen!? Weiss huffed as she ran away from the wildfire. Apparently using fire-based attacks in the middle of a forest was a bad idea. Who knew?
To be fair, she had trained primarily on Winter's Grimm thralls. She had been unprepared for how long it took a real burning Grimm carcass to dissolve. Long enough for the underbrush to catch fire, as it turned out.
A pack of Beowolves pursued her as they also fled from the fire, but the escape of both parties ground to a halt when they encountered a sheer rock face. As fire and Grimm closed in from all sides, Weiss felt that coming to Beacon might have been a mistake. This never would have happened at Atlas. There was basically only ice, snow, and rocks there. Not a single flammable thing in sight. But noooo, she wanted to be adventurous and come to Vale.
A Beowolf charged at her while she thought these things. Pirouetting out of the way, she pierced its jugular in a counterattack. Then she spun the chamber of Myrtenaster and stabbed the rapier into the ground. An ice-infused glyph shot out spikes of ice in all directions, skewering one of the Grimm and warding the others away.
Breath, Weiss reminded herself. She was fine. Nothing scary about this at all. All according to her training. Now, first position, then demi-plié.
Taking advantage of the breathing room, she prepared another set of glyphs to help her jump up the small cliff. She leapt up towards safety…
Only to lurch after reaching the first glyph.
"Aaaagggh!" Weiss screamed. One of the burning Beowolves had snuck past her ice spikes and grabbed her leg. The skin of her calf seared and began melting. Her concentration snapped, shattering the glyph and sending her tumbling back towards the ground.
The Grimm howled in delight and fury as they started to rush her. She grit her teeth and pushed herself up, slashing out wildly with her sword. She needed to get up the cliff before the fire got any closer, but the Beowolves were overwhelming her with sheer numbers.
Relax, Weiss. Remember your training. Attack. Remise. She began a dance of death against the Beowolves. Parry the claw swipe. Riposte. Flames crackled. She tried to summon a glyph again, but the onslaught of monsters didn't give her the chance. She was being dogpiled.
That's when she started taking hits. Aura protected her from the impacts themselves, but it did nothing to block the rising heat of the wildfire. She needed to escape. She needed to get away or she was going to burn alive.
Finally the inevitable happened. She stumbled on a bad lunge, and one of the Beowolves knocked her down. Myrtenaster fell out of her hand. In her training, this was usually the part where Winter's summons "killed" her.
Except this wasn't a training exercise. Her sister wasn't here. The reality of the situation finally set in: no one was going to help her. Not Pyrrha, not the blonde doofus, and not the 15-year-old dolt. Weiss was going to be torn to shreds and burnt to ashes, and no one was going to save her.
"Not like this…" she whispered. One of the remaining Beowolves hovered over her, its arms rising in what was sure to be a deadly blow.
A flurry of gunshots sounded above the inferno's din. The Grimm stumbled back and disintegrated.
"Hold on!" a feminine voice shouted at her. Weiss felt an arm wrap around her torso and then the familiar swing of flight. Centripetal acceleration carried her above the rock face she had failed to scale earlier. She landed on the plateau above face-first, a soft body on top of her.
"I can't believe it. Someone saved me. You saved me!" Weiss started babbling into the ground, her voice muffled by grass and dirt. She felt her eyes water—probably from all the ash in the air. Yeah. She definitely wasn't getting emotional.
"I can't believe it either. I saved a Schnee," the girl said dully.
Weiss pushed herself up and finally caught a glimpse of her hero. "You!" she cried.
"I have a name, you know. Not that someone like you would have bothered to learn it."
"Of cour—h-how dare…" she trailed off. Was she really going to act like this toward the person who saved her life? "I'm…sorry. Please, tell me your name."
Amber eyes transfixed icy blue. "Blake Belladona," the girl said. Her bow fluttered in the ash-filled wind.
"Blake, I don't know how to say this, but—" Weiss struggled for words. Damn her Schnee pride, she was going to say this properly. She took a deep breath…
And promptly fell into a coughing fit. There was a lot of smoke in the air.
"Maybe we should get away from the fire before you give me your heart-felt thanks," suggested Blake.
"I-I left my rapier down there…" Weiss croaked.
"What was that?"
Blake looked over the edge of the rock face. "Hey, did your weapon have a lot of dust in it?"
"I'm pretty sure your rapier just exploded in the fire."
"That's…I don't know how this day could get any more humiliating." Weiss was starting to suspect her tears weren't just from the smoke. Yep, she was definitely getting emotional. "What next? Those special recruits I keep hearing about are real, and not some fabrication made to mess with me?"
Blake looked back at her uncomfortably.
"Blake…do you know something about that?"
/ - /
A distance away, Amber watched the initiates flee the forest fire. She sighed and condensed a rain cloud over the forest. "Tsk, tsk," she said as she found Weiss Schnee on the evaluation roster. She would be making a note of this.
Satisfied that Amber had the problem handled, Ozpin and Glynda resumed their ongoing argument. Amber wasn't clear on the details, but it had something to do with some students Ozpin had let into the school.
"I don't really see why you're so against the boy," the headmaster said.
"Hmph, his landing strategy left much to be desired. Only an idiot would so grossly overestimate the amount of wind dust needed to break a fall." Professor Goodwitch's voice dripped with condescension.
Amber raised her hood to hide her burning ears.
"Now, now, Glynda," said Ozpin. "Both him and Miss Rose were perfectly fine. Though I think Qrow might have been knocked out in the chaos, if his radio silence is anything to go by…"
Serves him right, thought Amber. "Teaching is easy," Qrow said. "First years never ask hard questions," he said. "Caw caw," he said, when I realized he tricked me. She made a silent promise to do something nice for the blonde boy to make up for this mess. Knocking Qrow on his ass officially made Jaune Arc her new favorite student.
"Besides," Ozpin continued, "I think the question of Mr. Arc's competence was more than laid to rest by the reports that you yourself brought to my attention."
"That's…fair, I suppose. But why the Belladonna girl?"
"She had an impressive number of community service hours."
"And Melanie Malachite?"
"Possesses great potential, though it might not seem that way on paper. Simply talking to her reveals her superior moral character."
Amber squinted her eyes at her scroll. "Is nobody going to talk about the Goliath in the forest?"
"Yes! Thank you, Amber." Glynda pinched the bridge of her nose. "Jaune Arc, Blake Belladonna, and Melanie Malachite I can all understand on some level. But Headmaster, you cannot be serious about the fourth recruit! She's clearly—"
"There's no need to say it aloud, Glynda." Ozpin cut her off reproachfully. "She can become a great asset to this academy."
"Er, that's not really what I meant when I said 'Goliath in the forest,'" Amber interjected. It was chasing after a boy in bronze armor, who was somehow navigating the foliage with his eyes closed. Were elder Grimm really supposed to be part of this exercise?
"Good point, Amber," said Glynda, apparently misinterpreting the former's words. "Would she be able to participate in normal class activities? Not to mention her uncanny—"
"Glynda, enough. I understand your objections, but I have deemed all four of those students worthy of this school." There was a tone of finality in the statement that brokered no room for disagreement. "Unless…do you suspect my judgement is faulty?"
Ozpin's forehead was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Amber had never seen him so worked up before. Even Gylnda backed off a bit.
"No, Headmaster. Of course not," said Professor Goodwitch. "Forgive me for implying otherwise."
"It's no matter," said Ozpin, a touch of sadness in his voice. "Let's just wait and see how my recruits perform. Blake Belladonna has already saved Ms. Schnee's life, after all. I suspect the others have much to reveal as well."
"Err…you two, are you seeing this?" Amber pointed at her camera feed. A shadow zoomed across the image, dismembering the elephant Grimm's legs before stabbing it in the belly over and over again. The bronze-armored boy looked on in horror as his "savior" turned to him and smiled.
Ozpin sipped hot cocoa. "See, my fourth recruit is already pulling her wei—my gods! What is she doing to Mr. Bronzewing's eye!?"
/ - /
Yang bobbed and weaved as she fought the Ursa. Up. Up. Down. Down. Left. Right. Left. Right. Counter. Attack!
The Grimm, which had already taken a significant amount of damage, started to run away.
"You're not getting away from me!" Yang's hair ignited as she lunged to finish the job. Thrusting her fist forward, the Grimm was knocked through a thicket of trees. In place of its stomach was a gaping hole bleeding black mist.
"Tch." She spat. "Shows you. Challenging me bear-handed."
The dissolving Ursa unveiled the clearing beyond like a rising curtain. There, a green-robed man with long black hair stood over an injured Ursa of his own. Moving faster than Yang's eyes could follow, his hand fell down in a chop that split the Grimm's head from its body. His foe vanquished, the boy leaned over and gasped for air. His face was flushed and his body was drenched with sweat.
"Uh, hey," said Yang. She waved uncertainly.
He glanced at her and attempted to reign in his breathing. Wiping his face on his sleeve, he gave her a curt nod.
"Soooo, I guess this makes us partners." Yang hopped up to him. "Wow…you must be really out of shape to let a single Ursa rile you up this much. I'll have to fix that." She gave him a friendly punch on the arm.
The boy's head whipped around, as if he was looking for something behind him, but there was nothing there but scarred earth. He sighed and rubbed his arm. "You…must be Yang," he said breathily.
"How did you know?"
"…A feeling." He composed himself and gave a bow. "My name is Lie Ren, though my friend calls me Ren."
"Friend," singular? Interesting. She would have to ask about that later. "Yang Xiao Long. Call me Yang!"
Ren looked surprised—or, at least, as surprised as someone as unexpressive as him could look. "Xiao Long you say?"
"Yang, I say," she parroted back at him.
"No, that's not what I—" The words died in his mouth as she gave him the trademark Xiao Long smirk. "Never mind. I look forward to working with you, Yang. Shall we proceed?"
"Lead the way, partner!"
/ - /
"So, Ruby, how is Crescent Rose holding up? I didn't damage her when we fell, did I?" Jaune chatted as they walked through the forest. He held a pair of broken tree branches in one hand, which he was sharpening into makeshift spears with the edge of his sword.
"Fine, Jaune. Thanks for asking," said Ruby with a touch of sarcasm. She was cradling her scythe in her hands. "It would take a little more than that to damage my baby."
"I read on RemNet that aura could be channeled through weapons to improve their durability and attack power. I don't see how that prevents normal mechanical failures though. How often do you do maintenance on her?"
"More often than you do maintenance on your sword, by the looks of it."
"My family told me Crocea Mors is indestructible."
Ruby glanced at the sword's edge, which was riddled with dents, cuts, and other imperfections. It looked like it hadn't been cared for in ages. "And you believe that?" she asked.
"Of course not. Nothing lasts forever. Give me a good whetstone though and it'll be as good as new. And Crocea Mors does have the advantage of having no moving parts." He glanced down at Crescent Rose from the corner of his eye. "It probably won't break in mylifetime."
"You know, even if we put yesterday behind us, I can't let you say something like that and get away with it."
"Please don't hit me."
"I won't." Ruby frowned. Maybe she took after Yang more than she thought. "I was going to suggest a bet."
"Sure," he said. "Whoever's weapon breaks first has to do a favor of the winner's choosing?"
There was a growl in the bushes ahead of them, which caught Ruby off guard. Before she could react, Jaune had already planted Crocea Mors into the ground and hurled both his spears.
A moment later, a juvenile Beowolf stumbled forward, skewered by the glorified branches. Jaune readied his sword to finish it off, but there was no need. The Grimm fell onto the forest floor and dissolved into black sludge.
"Again, Jaune? That's the third one. You could leave some for me, you know." Ruby puffed out her cheeks. His reaction time was too good. She couldn't get a kill in edgewise.
"Sorry, habit. If it helps, that usually only slows them down. Must be lucky with my aim today." He stepped forward and examined the remains of the spears. "Tch, both shattered again."
"Maybe you're enhancing your strength with aura?"
"Isn't that supposed to take a ton of training and practice?" He examined the branches of the nearby trees before picking one and snapping it off.
She thought about that. Jaune had healed his injuries and created a defensive barrier right after his aura was unlocked. Wasn't that actually really weird?
Ruby paled. Either Jaune was secretly super talented, or those things were flukes. In the latter case, she had a feeling she knew who would be giving Jaune the "ton of training" he needed.
Letting go of that line of thinking before she started attracting Grimm, Ruby observed Jaune shaving off the twigs and leaves from his chosen branch. "You are able to attack with your sword, right?" she asked. "If it's just a glorified carving knife for your throwing spears, the bet is off."
"Hey! I'm able to throw Crocea Mors pretty well too. Have some faith in me."
"Of course, my bad." She sighed. "So what next, Hunter-Man? Secure a food supply? Rub some sticks together to make fire?"
She raised her hands in surprise as something came flying towards her, which she managed to catch. "…Where did you get an apple?"
"We passed a tree a few hundred yards back. As for fire, here." Jaune tossed Ruby a small box of matches.
"Well, huh." She opened it up and looked inside. "Why are all the match heads scraped off?"
"Oh, I meant to throw that one out, sorry." He placed a hand on the last canister on his belt, as if to reassure himself of its presence. Then he dug through his pocket with his other hand and pulled out an identical box. "Here they are. See, I have more! Don't worry."
"Thank goodness. We're saved," Ruby teased, which caused Jaune to pout a little. At least he was fun to talk to. And as stubborn as he was, he never intentionally insulted or yelled at her. Now if only he stopped stealing all the kills…
"Do you know if we're going the right way? I'd rather not have to actually camp out here," she said thoughtfully. "Especially since those storm clouds appeared out of nowhere."
"I'll go check where we are." He walked over to a nearby tree and leapt up, grabbing onto its lowest branch. Then he began an impressively speedy ascent to the top.
"And you're a tree-climbing expert now too? What next, magic tricks?"
"I'm in my natural element," he called down. "Also, I do know how to escape from straitjackets and how a lot of tricks work, but I don't give performances."
"Uh, then why…?"
"To spot phony magicians," he said, as if that explained everything.
Ruby was impressed with Jaune's foresight. She imagined he would get a lot of mileage out of that straitjacket knowledge in the future. "Can you see the temple?" she called up to him.
"No, but I didn't expect to. The forest is too overgrown to make out ruins from this height."
"Then why are you up there?"
"Figuring out where we are. You're not going to like it." He jumped down from the tree and showed Ruby his scroll.
"This is…a map of Emerald Forest?"
Jaune grimaced. "Most forests in Remnant are uncharted since there's no desire to settle them, and people prefer to build roads on open plains so travelers can spot Grimm from a distance. That being said, the Emerald Forest is right next to Vale. It's one of the most carefully mapped wildernesses in the world, and that includes its notable geographic and archaeological features."
"Including the forest temple Ozpin told us about?"
"Yes. It's the greyed out sections next to this ravine." He pointed at a section of the map. "Or those are the ones he probably wants us to go to. There are other ruins, but they're all much farther away from the school. And we are here, at the intersection of these three lines."
"What are those?"
"I just drew them in. This one is from the cliff in the direction we were launched. This one is from the largest buttress of Beacon tower and the tower itself, which are both visible and lined up from our position, and this last one is from these two mountain peaks, which are also lined up from our position. Which means…"
"We're 2 miles from the temple, on foot," said Ruby dejectedly.
"Yeah…we would have landed a bit closer, but our collision killed our forward momentum."
"Well, at least we know where we are and where to go. Good job?" She was honestly surprised by how reliable Jaune had been, but she supposed he had lived in the wild for four months. It made sense that he was good at this.
Jaune rubbed his neck and smiled sheepishly. "I would say thanks, but everyone else is using a map too."
"How do you know?"
"Because only idiots would stumble around the forest blindly? It's not like Ozpin told us where the temple was."
"Oh, good point." Ruby wouldn't have thought to use a map, but she wasn't about to admit that to him.
"Also, it gets worse. There's another problem."
"I saw a plume of smoke rising from right around here." He gestured at the midpoint between them and the temple. "A wildfire, probably. Right in the middle of our path."
"Do you think it's serious?"
"Wildfires can move anywhere between 7 and 14 mph depending on the terrain, but it's raining ahead so I don't think it will spread too far. These storm clouds are a blessing. We will have to take a detour to avoid it though, which will slow us down even more."
"Is there any reason to rush to the temple? We can just take our time and walk around, can't we?"
"I'm not sure." Jaune considered the idea. "Ozpin said the staff would be watching and grading us. Finishing late might come with penalties, so I'd rather not risk it."
"Another good point…" said Ruby. Jaune really made too many of them.
"You have super speed, don't you? Can you speed us both up?"
Ruby shook her head. "No. I haven't really tried carrying people with me before, but even if I could, I would run out of stamina long before I got us there."
"Do you have any ideas then? Because other than jogging there the normal way and hoping we catch up, I've got nothing."
"Give me a moment to think." She furrowed her brow in thought, but she was interrupted by a loud screech. Looking up, a dark shadow flew over the pair. It was the largest Nevermore either of them had ever seen.
"Man, what is it with me and corvids today?" Jaune complained.
"I think I have an idea."
/ - /
Am I, like, the first one here? Melanie looked around the temple ruins. There were pedestals scattered throughout the area, and on top of each was an oversized chess piece. Not a single one had been taken yet.
"Like, obviously I would be the first one here," she said aloud with more confidence than she felt. Melanie stepped up to a pedestal and collected a relic from it. She supposed it was a "dark horse" or something like that—having never played chess before she didn't know the actual name.
Two teenage boys in armor emerged from the forest behind her. One had long blue hair and looked oddly familiar, while the other had a mohawk and wore a spiked shoulder guard. They glanced at her briefly, but they were too absorbed in their own conversation to pay her any real attention.
"Hey, if we find Cardin and Dove we can have a team of Valean knight houses. That'd be cool," said the blue-haired boy.
Ewww, thought Melanie. Cardin has friends? Just ew.
"The royal knights of Vale! It'll be just like old times," said Mohawk Kid.
"Except we don't have a king anymore, and I'm not sure any of us would make a good leader."
He ran a hand through his blue hair. "I don't know Russel. He's been acting a bit tyrannical lately. I wouldn't vote for him."
Okay, maybe they weren't lost causes after all.
"You don't vote for monarchs, Sky."
"What method of selection would you propose then? It's not like we have a convenient Sword in the Stone laying around to imbue authority with divine right."
"True, we don't have one of those. But this is basic social contract theory: we're going to obey our leader in exchange for their guidance, so there ought to be some test of character to make sure they're a good person. Because if they're a bad person we will be compelled by social contract to do bad things in accordance to their will, which doesn't sound very heroic to me."
"We could just tell them no, you know," said Sky.
Russel brushed up his mohawk as he thought that over. "But who are we to question the will of a king?" he said finally.
"You might be viewing monarchism a bit too romantically man."
"I have the heart of a knight!"
"With that hair-style?"
"It's supposed to be evocative of a plumed galea. And it's not like you have room to talk, Mr. 'love binds us together' Lark."
Oh, so that's where Melanie recognized the blue-haired boy. He was the one who spoke up during Ozpin's totally weird speech.
"Laugh it up," said Sky. "If someone wants my loyalty they'll have to win my heart first, but if you want to swear fealty to the first autocrat we run into, feel free to do so."
"Yeah, yeah." Russel took a gold-colored castle statuette from one of the pedestals. "Come on, we have the relic. Let's head back."
The oddly philosophical pair retreated back into the woods. With nothing better to do, Melanie sat on a pedestal and hummed softly to herself. She wondered what Miltia was up to. Knowing her sister, she was probably just waking up right around now. Lazy bum.
It wasn't long before another figure emerged from the forest's shade.
"Ren!" Melanie jumped up and called out to the boy she had met at breakfast.
He nodded at her before grimacing and jerking his head back slightly. Looking a bit further beyond, she saw a blonde hussie was shadowing him.
Oh. She sighed. "Yang."
"Malachite." The bitch looked between her and Ren before shrugging and stepping past them towards the relics.
"So you're partners with her, Ren?" asked Melanie.
"Yes," he replied. She started at how deep his voice was. Come to think of it, was this the first time he had actually spoken to her? "I'm worried about how Nora will take the news."
"Yeah, well, she probably found a partner herself already," she said sullenly.
"Perhaps, but perhaps not."
"I'll, like, go look for her then…" It certainly beat hanging out here in the presence of Xiao Long.
Ren gave her a small yet encouraging smile. "Good luck."
"Yeah," said Melanie as she gave Yang the stink eye. The bitch flipped Melanie off in return. "Like, you too."
With that Melanie Malachite began her journey back towards Beacon. Hopefully she would find a partner on the return trip.
/ - /
On the next episode of Skeptic Ball Z…
Russel and Sky kneel before Nora. "We beg you! We wish to follow our chosen queen!"
A hand wraps around the hilt of Crocea Mors. With this, the Deathstalker could be defeated. This was fate.
Ren staggers back. "This aura!"
Weiss: "He's…completely insane."
Jaune: "Ruby, close your eyes and look away. Try to think of something else. Happy thoughts." She does so—or tries to, rather. Ligaments and bones shift in a sickening snap. She whimpers pathetically, tears streaming down her face.
The boy's life was in danger. Ren knew that if he didn't intervene now…
The storm clouds above thundered, as if the skies themselves were shuddering under the weight of his concentrated might.
Ren: "I am more than just a man."
Ozpin: "A hero, huh? χαῖρε, νεανία!"
NEXT TIME: Lie Ren changes destiny!?
Post-chapter AN: here's some (liberal) translations of Ozpin's ancient Greek. If there are any professional classicists lurking around here, feel free to critique my composition skills in a review.
μωροι κύνες. οὐ παραφρονῶ. = Dumb dogs. I am not deranged.
ἆρα πάντες νυν πάρεστιν; = Is everyone here now?
ὦ μαθηταί! νά τώ θεὼ φρουρὰν ἄζηλον ὀχήσω. = O students! By the two gods I am to hold an unenviable watch.
ῥίψω γὰρ τήμερον ὑμᾶς ἐκ τῆς πέτρας. ποιεῖτε τοῦτο ἳνα μοι ἀρέσκητε. καί ἡδέως θεάσομαι τοῦτο ἀθλιωτάτον ἆθλον. = For today I shall throw you all from the cliff. You do this thing so that you might give me pleasure. And with pleasure I shall watch this most wretched struggle.
τί βούλεσθε, ὦ δούλη;…οἴμοι. = What do you want, slave woman?...Oh my.
χαῖρε, νεανία! = Yorokobe shounen!